Plato, in The Republic, discusses human nature, the meaning of justice, and the ordering of the perfect city, through a series of dialogues among philosophers. Plato, through the lens of the character Socrates, argues that justice is achieved when everyone in the city is doing the job that is most suited to their unique talents and not disturbing anyone else. In describing the ideal city, Plato argues that the philosophers must rule, as they possess the ultimate level of truth and knowledge, which makes them most suited for the task. To properly convey what philosophers possess and the masses lack, Plato uses the analogy of the divided line which divides all of existence into two realms: the visible and the intelligible. This analogy serves as a framework for his Allegory of the Cave, which is described in Book VII. The Allegory of the Cave powerfully depicts the human experience of knowledge, and the philosopher’s journey from the realm of the visible to the intelligible. Together, these analogies explain how society’s state as prisoners in the cave is caused by the political bodies’ control of their people’s access to information and education, as well as by the masses’ close mindedness and unwillingness to pursue knowledge and change their shallow perspectives.
At the end of Book VI, in discussing the ultimate good that the philosopher can understand, Socrates tells Glaucon to imagine a line that divides everything into two parts. First there is the world of the visible, that which we perceive with our senses, and the world of the intelligible, which is not seen, but rather understood. Within the world of the visible there are two parts: statues and other representations of living things, and the living things themselves. Likewise, within the world of the intelligible there are two parts: those things understood through math and logic, and those understood through deeper thinking and hypothesizing that reaches the true essence of things. Images and representations are imagined, while actual things are understood through our trust, which comes from our experiences of seeing things. The first level of intellect-math and logic- is attained through thought, while the highest level-deeper understanding of the truths, comes through intellection. This line portrays the full spectrum of levels of knowledge, starting from the lowest and shallowest level of imagination, to the deepest level of intellect. It is only through a comprehension of this spectrum that one can understand the philosopher’s ascent in the Allegory of the Cave, and truly appreciate why the philosophers must rule.
Book VII of The Republic opens with the famous Allegory of the Cave. A group of prisoners have been chained in a cave their entire lives, and can only see the wall of the cave that is directly in front of them. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and all sorts of people, animals, and statues pass in front of the fire, which creates shadows on the wall of the cave. These shadows are all that these prisoners have seen in their lives, and as such, the prisoners believe that the shadows are the only real things in the world. One day, one of the prisoners is freed and soon sees the fire and the statues, as he begins to understand the cause of the shadows. Next, the prisoner leaves the cave and is blinded by the light of the sun, unable to see everything around him. Slowly, as he becomes accustomed to the light, he sees the people, objects, and the sun. He soon realizes that the shadows in the cave are mere reflections of reality, and everything he thought was true and real was a mere shadow of reality. This powerful allegory represents the ascent of the philosopher from the bottom of the divided line-the world of shadows and imagination-to the highest level of knowledge-the world of intellect and deep understanding. Unlike the philosopher, though, who ascends to the ultimate truth, most of society remains chained in the cave, perceiving only the shadows that they see. It is incumbent upon the philosopher to guide the rest of society to the light beyond the cave, and to fix people’s eyes on the true essences of reality. Thus, the divided line is integral to understanding what the Allegory of the Cave represents in terms of the philosopher’s pursuit of deeper knowledge.
From the allegory one can extract two powerful lessons about the relationship between the pursuit of knowledge and the political and social character of human life. Firstly, one can learn that the leaders or political body of a society play a vital role in whether or not their society will be prisoners in the cave. The political body controls the society’s access to information and the kind of education that they receive, and they will shape the shadows that their people see. In societies like North Korea or the former Soviet Union, the government uses its power to severely limit the people’s access to education, in order to prevent dissidence and ensure compliance with the government. Citizens in such societies are like prisoners in the cave, in that their perception of their world is so shallow and far from reality. In contrast, free societies such as the United States grant their citizens full access to the internet as well as a proper education that allows the citizens to pursue knowledge and move up to a higher level of understanding. However, it is not only the political aspect of human life that controls whether society will progress further in their pursuit of knowledge. As a society, the people will determine how far they progress in their pursuit of knowledge, depending on their close-mindedness. Unfortunately, societies tend to be close-minded like the prisoners in the cave, and choose to accept their own version of reality. For people to leave their caves, the philosopher-rulers must fix the eyes of their citizens on the right things, and the people must live with a constant open-mindedness to change their perspectives and deepen their understanding of everything they know.
One might argue that the people’s progress in their pursuit of knowledge is determined solely by the political leaders who have the power to shape the information and education that the people are presented with, and the people themselves have no power in freeing themselves from the cave. If people have access to education and new knowledge, surely they will eventually turn their heads from the shadows and ascend to deeper understanding! After all, all knowledge is gained in a context. Such a contention could be inferred from the focus on the role of the philosopher and educators in turning people from the darkness to the light in order to free them from their perception of mere shadows. However, if one looks carefully at the allegory, it will become clear that the people themselves play an important role in their own enslavement to the cave. In the allegory, the prisoners in the cave mock the freed prisoner who tries to tell them about the reality beyond the shadows, due to their unwillingness to challenge their understanding of reality and to be open to the possibility that there is more to reality than they perceived. Socrates says of the prisoners’ reactions to the freed prisoner’s attempts to convince them to join him in leaving the cave: …wouldn’t he be the source of laughter, and wouldn’t it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth going up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn’t they kill him? The prisoners of the cave are prevented from climbing up the divided line towards true understanding because of their own close-mindedness. The leaders, philosophers, and educators can only go so far in showing their citizens the true and good things and creating that context for pursuing deep truths. It is upon the people themselves to be willing to listen, to be challenged, and to change their current perceptions of the world.